Return To The Garden
Sidetracks Restaurant & Lounge
75-21 31st Ave., East Elmhurst
Hours: Mon-Thu 11 am-10:30 pm; Fri & Sat 11 am-11:30 pm; Sun noon-10 pm
After Thanksgiving, who wants to cook? You spent all that time preparing for Turkey Day, and the December holidays loom large in the not-so-distant future. Frankly, this is the perfect time to go out and explore a restaurant you’ve never been to.
That exactly what my family and I did Saturday night, venturing into East Elmhurst to find a great Chinese restaurant that could serve as respite between the holiday onslaughts.
J.J. Garden, in the strip mall next to Dante’s Catering Hall was just the right find for a crew of four generations exhausted from the holiday revelry. We knew we were in the right place when as soon as we were seated we were handed two bowls of fat fried noodles – a true tell of authenticity; never settle for thin noodles.
The menu at J.J.’s goes way beyond that of typical Chinese restaurant. Sure, they have all the standards you would expect, and do brisk take-out business, but the addition of sizzling platters and giant casserole bowls of stew add to the dining-in experience.
We started with an order of Chicken Teriyaki ($5.95) and a skillet of Dumplings in Brown Sauce over Noodle ($9.95) on a cast iron platter. The teriyaki was pretty straightforward – plump tenders on skewers, grilled with the sauce and served with a warm side dish for dipping.
The skillet was a revelation; want to know how to bring the flavor out of what could otherwise be a drab dish? Let the flavors steam together as the dish continues to cook at the table. Each bite was better than the last and the five of us picked the dish clean before the platter had a chance to cool.
Moving on to our entrees, which we shared, we enjoyed spiced chicken twice with Kung Po Chicken with Peanuts ($9.50) as well as Sliced Chicken, Hunan Style ($9.50). We also tried the Satay Vermicelli and Beef Casserole ($12.95) and added a side of Pork Fried Rice ($6.95).
The Kung Po was fiery, with pieces of chopped chicken, celery, onion, cabbage and water chestnuts mixed with heaps of peanuts all in a blazing sauce dotted with Szechuan peppers. The coolness of the white rice mellowed the dish enough for my 9-year-old, while the fire of the flavor was enough to please the rest of our palates.
The Hunan chicken was more subdued, served with crisp broccoli and sprinkled with Szechuan pepper flakes – more tame in comparison to the Kung Po.
The beef casserole was a new experience; served in a small cauldron overflowing with bubbling liquid, slices of beef, onion and other vegetables, the dish was anchored by cellophane angel hair noodles. It was as much fun to eat as it was to savor the flavor.
The rice, which ended up serving as a base for many of the dishes, was rich, filled with eggs and vegetables and was just enough for all of us to share.
The meal ended with a platter of fresh pineapple and fortune cookies. We took our time eating and watched as customers made their way in and out of the restaurant. There was also a small party going on in the back room, which is available for private occasions. We’re thinking of having my grandmother’s 96th birthday party there. We’ll surely be back.
- Brian M. Rafferty